Very little good news is being reported about the private practice of law these days—especially at large law firms. Writers proclaim the "death of BigLaw" and decry a harsher law firm environment compared to a previous generation when firms seemingly exhibited a more nurturing attitude toward their lawyers. Analysts forecast continued tepid growth in demand for outside counsel legal services. Pricing of legal services is outdated or broken, and in need of drastic overhaul. Clients are demanding greater value from their outside counsel, often defined uniquely client by client. And all of this against a backdrop of reduced hiring of law school graduates and the resulting dramatic reduction in law school applications.
Without a doubt, law firms—like all organizations—are being challenged to respond to market forces. While many reports have been appropriately critical of the pace of that response, progress is being made. Firms that spent lavishly in the past have been forced to re-examine their balance sheets and focus on expense management. Some are adopting new (at least for law firms) concepts such as process improvement and project management, and embracing (not just tolerating) alternative pricing models. New career models focused on professional development and greater flexibility are emerging. Leadership training, creative staffing models, and a greater understanding of the importance of diversity and inclusion are becoming industry norms. And many firms are learning how to listen to clients in a more intentional way and are starting to ask questions to better understand clients' broader business implications and priorities. No longer is "we have always done it that way" a sufficient reason to continue any practice or approach or avoid innovation.
Of course, responding means changing, and change can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Lawyers in general tend to be a skeptical lot and resistant to change—a by-product perhaps of our legal training and documented personality tendencies. As a result, the discomfort arising from change in law firms is often magnified.
There is no doubt that further progress is needed, and as a profession we will need to join our clients in learning how to continually adapt and embrace change. However, I submit that the benefits of practicing at a law firm are being forgotten among the stories of law firms gone awry and the torrent of criticism and doomsday predictions. It's easy to overlook these benefits, but they continue to be substantial. To name a few:
Intellectual and professional fulfillment
Most of us went to law school with some idea of becoming a trusted advocate and counselor. At the right firm, and with the right clients, the private practice of law still offers intellectual stimulation, requires and rewards creativity and innovation, and allows for a truly fulfilling career and the deep satisfaction that comes from serving clients well. Nothing is more fulfilling than helping a client—who has put trust in you—advance a complicated business objective or overcome a material challenge.
Working with talented colleagues
Many of the best and brightest continue to be attracted to our profession—both as lawyers and in the other areas of professional expertise now required to run large firms. We have the additional benefit of partnering with extremely capable business executives, within legal departments and beyond, in a client capacity. We work with talented, critical thinkers who challenge us to perform at a high level and deliver the best possible outcomes for clients. Teaming up to collectively achieve a goal produces great personal reward. It is true that in some firms competition, rather than cooperation, prevails. However, at many firms collegiality is the order of the day, and lawyers, other professionals and clients truly like each other and enjoy working collaboratively.
Independence and ownership
Law firms offer substantial professional independence. Lawyers have the opportunity to pursue areas of interest and develop practices that they desire. Although we see increasing need for standard procedures in big institutions, including in large law firms, lawyers continue to have significant discretion and are encouraged to imprint their unique character and perspective in developing their craft and shaping teams that serve clients. Further, law firms are one of the few remaining institutions that continue to be organized as a partnership. Although the size of some law firms has limited the influence of any particular individual, law firm partners continue to be true co-owners and enjoy the benefits that come with ownership.
Contributing to your community
Most law firms support their lawyers and other professionals in pro bono legal and other community service. Some firms are true leaders in pro bono legal services. Law firms are uniquely suited to provide this critically important and extraordinarily satisfying service—which we view as an obligation of the profession—and our commitment to pro bono also serves to remind us that the practice of law is not just a business. And we also contribute to our communities in many ways, including civic and nonprofit support—again, continuing a long history of community leadership.
Practicing at a law firm requires hard work. Even with the best flex-time and reduced-time programs and alternative career paths, we are in a demanding service business and must respond to our clients' needs. This probably results in less predictability, on average, than in other occupations. However, most law firms excel in flexibility—which provides its own distinct and important value in our busy world. Most firms don't care whether lawyers come to the office at a certain time or take time off for a kid's soccer game—so long as they take care of the needs of clients and colleagues. This may mean working late after the kids are in bed to finish a project, or even sneaking in a quick email to a client at that soccer game, but lawyers generally have the ability to arrange their time as needed—something not available in many other places. (In this regard, technology has been both friend and foe—the very rise in the ability to communicate quickly that has fueled higher expectations and less predictability, also has provided us handheld and remote devices that enable increased flexibility.)
The challenges facing the legal profession and the private practice of law are real. We must embrace these challenges and view them as an invitation to adapt and learn to innovate—like all other enduring institutions. However, as we continue this journey as a profession, let's remember that private practice still provides some extraordinary benefits and opportunities. It just might make it a bit easier to embrace the change.
Andrew Humphrey is the Managing Partner and Chair of the Management Board at Faegre Baker Daniels, an international firm with more than 750 legal and consulting professionals.